Sharif Shehadeh, a member of parliament, recently defended the measure in the Syrian press. “Why the outcry? Is there anything prettier than the Syrian flag to decorate Damascus with?”
But residents here say the forced flag painting has had the effect of intimidating Damascenes. They claim the rule was never publicly announced; rather, members of the Syrian intelligence services went door to door personally informing all shopkeepers. They also say that if a shopkeeper doesn’t comply, the intelligence members will threaten him, and if he continues to resist, arrest him and close the shop.
Ahmad is a shop owner who says he was forced to paint the red flag on his establishment door.
“If you don’t paint the flag, one could suffer dire consequences. If you don’t paint the flag it means you’re against us, you’re with the ‘terrorists’,” he said. “I know one shop owner who emigrated to Canada with his family. He called his neighbor to ask if he could paint the flag on his shop door so as to prevent it from being looted or destroyed.”
One painter hired by the government to paint on doors in the Salhieh neighborhood defended the process. “You’re not forced,” he said. “You can paint the flag horizontally like most people do, or you could paint it vertically or diagonally or even paint a waving flag. No one will say anything. You’re free to do as you please.”
Another painter, who is politically opposed to Assad, said he had refused to benefit from the trend, despite the profits it stands to generate; the flag-painting phenomenon has generated business both for established painters and for upstarts who have now embraced the trade in order to take advantage of the sharp increase in demand.
“I will not paint the flag,” he said, “even if I die from starvation.”
But other anti-Assad painters disagreed, embracing the chance to do paid work in a tight economy.
“Why wouldn’t we seize this opportunity [to make money] especially if we’re out of a job?” one of them said.
They also said the necessary paint and tools had grown scarce, with demand outpacing reserves.
Before the painting of shop doors, Damascus residents said they had already been flooded with Syrian flags, which flew from cement barriers on streets in government-controlled areas. They said the effect of the flags was to pass a message: We are here. The government is steadfast.